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Are we prepared for the digital transformation?

Looking back over time, we can see that the Information Age has made our economies and our society knowledge-driven; our main drivers of growth have become based on pushing bits up and down (digital services) and on connectivity improvements which have made delivering those bits quicker, and ubiquitous, all throughout the world. In sum, we are assembling the “space shuttle” for globalisation.

In today’s world, the biggest transport company doesn’t own a single car. The foremost house rental company doesn’t own a single house or apartment. The space race is being carried out not by state agencies but by energy, automotive and online payment companies (SpaceX founded by Elon Musk), by a company that started as a record shop (Virgin Galactic, founded by Sir Richard Branson) and even by the world’s biggest retail company (Blue Origin, founded by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos).

The car industry is being challenged by Internet companies which have yet to produce a single car. Recently, an Internet/TV company went global, disrupting the TV industry’s decades-long reign. Trade is global, companies are going global; the workforce and talent pool are becoming more and more global as well.

In the time since we have unleashed the information society, our economies have undergone incredible transformation, causing me to wonder, “Are we taking this transformation seriously?” I don’t think so.

Our so-called modern societies, democracies, governments and institutions are still not organised with an agile mindset that will enable them to engage in decision-making and policy-making that is able to cope with such transformation and speed. The way we think and govern this transformation is still rooted in a sectoral approach, not focused or centred on the citizen.

Governments, politicians and institutions should give to digital policies the same weight, the same holistic approach which they do for those dealing with education, health, social issues, the economy and even foreign affairs and defence.

We fail to consider how the digital transformation is being disseminated horizontally, economically and across sectors (e.g. in education, health, manufacturing, farming, etc.) and how vertically it is impacting our society.

The Internet has become the veins of the modern economy and of modern society — and data the lifeblood within, rendering cyberspace analogous to The Good, the Bad and the Ugly for every middle-aged or older politician.

The Good, because it has brought about increases in productivity and therefore growth; the Bad, because it has increased inequality and has apparently led to lower incomes and to the erosion of low-skilled jobs; and the Ugly, because it has been regarded as an unruly space facilitating cyberattacks, fake news and terrorism.

We must then prepare our society and institutions for the radical change that is underway. Governments, politicians and institutions should give to digital policies the same weight, the same holistic approach which they do for those dealing with education, health, social issues, the economy and even foreign affairs and defence.

At EU level, this Commission (EC) has built a political structure to underpin the Digital Single Market (DSM) for concentrating efforts on the market dimension horizontally. Still lacking, however, is proper coordination or structure on cyber-diplomacy in order to address and promote a values-based and a rules-based global cyberspace — an EU Digital Ambassador is needed.

In the European Parliament (EP), digital affairs are done either in the Industry, Research and Energy (ITRE) Committee or in the Internal Market and Consumer Protection Committee (IMCO). But due to the cross-sector nature of the digital files, some files end up having five committees involved. This brings slowness and lack of agility on delivering pieces of legislation: a Digital Affairs Committee is badly needed!

In the Council of the EU (Council), whilst digital files are discussed in the Transport, Telecommunications and Energy Council configuration (TTE) and in the Competitiveness Council configuration (COMPET), most of these files end up being dealt with in more than just one Council configuration, within the framework of a particular sector, thus losing the horizontal vision needed in the digital transformation. Here, and again, it’s about time to devise a Digital Affairs Council.

A Digital Affairs Council would bring together a specially designated digital minister from every Member State, who would address the “digital present” but also devise a borderless and human-centred digital future. A digital minister would enable its Member State to no longer regard the digital realm merely as a sector, framed within his country’s own borders.

As a matter of fact, with digitalisation taking place in every sector, citizens will also be equally demanding toward their respective Member States, either in terms of “public” services or public policies: soon, domestic policies will have to deal with algorithms and the virtual world as well. 

Concerns over privacy must be addressed, as do other recent phenomena, such as cyberbullying and online behaviour. We should be looking at how new digital technologies are re-shaping the family structure as we have traditionally conceived it, at how they are affecting our sense of time, our critical-thinking capacity to evaluate information and our standards of knowledge themselves — which are fundamentally changing our perceptions of the world. Before long, we should be questioning which values we want to preserve and nurture in a society that is turning digital.

New generations born in a hyper-connected world will hardly understand the concepts of borders or sovereignty — even the languages which are seen by today’s generations as barriers will be transformed by technology into enablers. We need to cope with their aim for flexibility — working from anywhere to reach everyone in the world.

It’s being said that globalisation and digitalisation are destroying jobs — or at least destroying more than they create. I’m not fully convinced of this; I believe there will be changes in jobs rather than losses: changes, for example, from low-skilled to high-skilled work.

Governments should thus be preparing society for a massive movement of workers from one profession to another, putting the right employment and social policies in place to incentivise workers, and encouraging the private sector to invest more in skilling, up-skilling and re-skilling human capital.

In the same way, discussions have started to appear regarding what some call “the negative effects of automation”. The ideas range from Universal Basic Income to taxing robots, although the point remains valid that “there is no single magic bullet for poverty” and inequality. But these tools can be valuable instruments when contextualised within a broader strategy — such as an education, fiscal and social reform — and targeted such as to maximise effectiveness.

We need to prepare future generations for jobs that don’t yet exist. For this, deep reform of our educational systems is of the utmost importance. Kids should master creativity, critical thinking, communications and adaptability. Throughout their lives, they will have to face a world in rapid and constant change, in which their ability to adapt to this change will be key to surviving. We must nurture a natural process of learning, unlearning and relearning.

Quick adaptability to change, therefore, is key to success, be it at EU level or Member State level, in the public or the private sector, or even at the level of the individual.